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Birmingham cost-cutting plan ‘unlawful’ and likely to be challenged in court

By: Paul Dale
Published July 17, 2013, in Politics

Re-blogged from the Chamberlain Files website: http://www.thechamberlainfiles.com/lawyers-circle-around-councils-withdrawal-of-school-buses-for-disabled-children/9722

An attempt by Birmingham City Council to save money by refusing to provide specialised school transport for disabled children is probably unlawful and likely to be challenged in the courts.

Legal advice drawn up for the parents of autistic children attending one of the city’s special schools has concluded the council risks breaching the Education Act by insisting that youngsters use public transport rather than being escorted on expensive minibuses and taxis.

Chamberlain Files understands that children’s services cabinet member Brigid Jones has seen a copy of the written advice and that if the controversial changes are not abandoned Labour council leaders are resigned to a legally aided judicial review in the High Court brought by parents of disabled children who have been refused suitable transport.

If the court was to find in favour of the parents, the council’s attempt to reduce the £16 million annual cost of home to school transport would be in tatters. A victory by parents would inevitably lead to questions being asked about Cllr Jones’s decision to press ahead with cutting school transport and the advice given to her by council lawyers.

At least 10 children due to start Uffculme School, King’s Heath, in September have been refused specialised transport and offered a bus pass instead. Some will have to travel from as far away as Northfield, Weoley Castle and Rubery, lengthy journeys that involve catching more than one bus.

Formal notices sent to parents by the council refusing requests for specialised transport explain that the application has been rejected even though the child lives more than the maximum three miles walking distance from school and has special needs, behavioural difficulties, has no sense of danger and would need to catch several buses to get to school.

The notice states: “We do not however consider there are any reasons as to why your child’s special educational needs should prevent you taking your child to and from school on public transport.”

Lawyers have warned that the council risks breaking guidance from the Department for Education that school transport must be “stress free” for all children, particularly those with disabilities.

The legal advice also points out that the council cannot require parents to escort their children to and from school on public transport, or drive them to school. This would only be lawful if the parent voluntarily agreed to do so.

It’s understood the legal advice claims that most of the decisions to refuse requests for transport to Uffculme are unlawful. The Education Act 1996 makes it clear that local authorities cannot insist on parents providing transport for children with disabilities.

Under the cost-cutting plans approved by the cabinet, parents and carers will be handed a personal transport budget and told to use the money to pay for journeys to school. Children will be offered “independent travel training” to help them cope with trips on public transport.

But according to the legal advice, any expectation that children with autism could cope with travelling to school on public transport with or without an escort is said to be unrealistic. Most of the children involved have little sense of danger, may run out into busy roads and would be unable to cope in a crowded bus or train, the lawyers claim.

A move by the council to restrict transport assistance for special needs pupils to the nearest school will also be challenged in the judicial review.

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